It seems that the question of how to treat the stranger is an eternal issue – and is repeated today in this country with its fullness of venom. Here we are pondering again what to do with the many people who come to our borders trying to escape horrendous conditions that they have to face in their home land. Yes, they are brave people because in spite of the difficulties they face when they leave their homes, the love of their family, and the comfort of living within their own culture, they dare to wander in search of a new homeland and become a stranger with all the difficulties that will ensue.
The issue of how to treat the stranger has been an ancient one in Jewish thought, and it is reflected and encapsulated in two Biblical events — in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and in the story recounting our Egyptian experiences. But the issue doesn’t stop there. We were strangers for more than two millennia both before and after the destruction of the Temple. Perhaps it is apropos that we look at our own historical wandering in search for land on which we can live without fear of annihilation. In fact, Jews called themselves a people of “nah v’nad,” a people in constant movement and search for a home. We were ejected by many countries and for millennia did not find a safe haven where we could live in peace. As a matter of fact, this quest for a peaceful and accepting country is my own story as a Holocaust survivor.
Central in the story of Sodom is the juxtaposition of humanism and barbarism. On the one hand, there is God with a humanitarian outlook stressing the principle of tzedek, of justice. Standing in opposition is Sodom’s barbarism which deprives people, especially strangers, from their dignity and subjects them to all types of de-humanizing forces. The Talmud is resplendent with tales of Sodomite evil.
To make us conscious of the plight of the stranger, each year we recount our historical experiences as strangers in the land of Egypt. And in so doing, we Jews are forced to confront the issue of whether we will make ourselves into humane persons governed by morals, or, we will succumb to our fears of the strangers and deprive them from inclusion in our social system as well as deny them what the founding fathers of this country called their unalienable rights to justice.
How many of us Jews, living now in comfort and relative wealth, seek to remember the struggles of our ancestors trying to escape the Russian pogroms and the anti-Semitic laws depriving us a chance to life itself? Only 73 years ago, after being subject to forces of destruction, I and the other survivors of the Holocaust being housed in displaced persons camps, were similarly seeking admission to countries where we hoped to re-construct our broken lives.
Let me reiterate our cry of despair: it is ZACHOR – remember modern day Amalekites who sought our destruction. Do you remember the ship St. Louis of the Hamburg- Amerika line that in 1939 plied the Caribbean with 937 passengers, mostly Jews, seeking to escape Nazi Germany? They planned to disembark in Cuba while waiting entry to the U.S. Cuba refused the ship to enter its territory and it returned to Germany. Most of its passenagers were then sent to camps and died. The United States, citing legal argument, has similarly refused entry to refugees.
As a child, I too was told of the wonders of America – this “golden medinah,” so called not only because of economic opportunities, but because, in addition to gold paved streets, the real gold in America is found in its just laws and above all equal opportunity, untainted by anti-Semitism. America was more than a good country – it was a dream. But the truth is far from the dream. Unfortunately, there are those in America who refuse to make it a shining dream or as some wish to call it “the new Jerusalem.” Nonetheless, I have hope that the idealism of America will be realizable.
We came and stayed, and in some ways we managed to alter it to become less anti-Semitic than it was. Like those on our southern border, I remember my own struggle to enter this country. I clearly remember 70 years ago when I stood on the deck of the SS Marine Flasher, the ship that brought me to this country. There in New York harbor, even though I had a visa, still I was denied entry and sent to spend 28 days incarcerated at Ellis Island.
Just like our ancestors when given the law, the Torah, that was centered on the principle of justice, so we today are similarly asked to stand up for humanism against barbarism and remember our ancestors who for many years also sought a safe haven. Remember the words of Hillel, “If not now, when?”
Let us not be fearful like other Jews to stand up for humane principles. In 2001, I spent eight weeks at Oxford University. It was Rosh Hashanah, and I joined my fellow Jews in traditional services. At the end of the service, in a discourse with Jewish university deans, I asked them why I never see them stand up against British opposition to Israel. Their answer was simple, and it still reflected the pre-Holocaust Jewish perspective: “We don’t dare.” For ages we Jews were advocates for the principles of fairness. We must continue to stand up for righteousness – that is for the rights of all people.
Malachi, the last prophet in the Jewish Bible, tells us: “Lo, I will send the Prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome and fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with destruction.”
We must be careful of validating the most villainous and immoral Nazi acts like taking children away from their parents. I remember standing in line at Birkenau with my father and my 13 year-old brother when a German SS came and took him away from us, never to be seen again. Are we to enter a similar immoral stage? ■